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Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Age of Consent (1969)

[Back cover]

Michael Powell's (Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) last full length original feature film before his death is a return to his favourite theme of the artist taking stock of his life. Acknowledged as one of Britain's foremost filmmakers, Powell's emphasis on the bold uses of imagery and color has inspired a whole generation of filmmakers, including Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, John Boorman, and Derek Jarman.

James Mason (The Verdict, A Star is Born) is superb in the role of a commercially successful but creatively jaded painter who retires from New York to seek tranquility and peace on the Great Barrier Reef. Here he meets an innocent yet physically mature teenager (Helen Mirren - The Hawk, The Long Good Friday), whom he strips and paints at the first opportunity, which re-awakens his creative drive, and the emotional and psychological results of the passionate and erotic encounter are followed through with seriousness and humour.

Visually stunning, filmed in brilliant sunshine, creating a mood reflecting the passion and reawakened spirit of a previously weary man, The film features excellent performances from lames Mason and a young Helen Mirren, complementing the superb direction by Powell, recognised by his peers as one of the foremost filmakers of his generation.

[Inside Cover]


Michael Powell's career is curious in that the more commercially successful his films became, the harder he found it to make new ones. Despite the huge success of the comedy They're a Weird Mob, he found himself becalmed in Australia, where it took the director three years to get another picture off the ground. For his part, Powell regarded Norman Lindsay's novel as a 'Girl Friday' story the author had merely churned out for the money and a stopgap between better things. Instead, it turned out to be a dead stop. As the artist who has lost his way, Mason's opening cry - "I started painting because it was my way of responding to the things that I love - light, colour, life, people, sensuality. I'm out of touch with them now. I'm indoors. 1 want to get out." - seems an echo of his predicament, with Frank Thring's art dealer perhaps even more to the point: "But do you belong there anymore ?"

Too early for his critical rediscovery, too late for his commercial triumphs of the forties, it seems indicative of the creative wasteland the director found himself in. Powell found it harder than most directors of his generation to adapt to the changing demands of sixties cinema and it is easy to see him winding down, beginning to rely on old tricks as, like the Wizard of Earthsea (another unfulfilled Powell project) his magic deserts him; in particular, the cut from the waters of the Barrier Reef to America via a watch in a fishtank in a New York shop window is a less successful variant on the famous cut from Chaucer's' pilgrims to WW2 England as a hawk turns into a spitfire in A Canterbury Tale. Yet other moments have a purity of their own - Mirren waking on the beach to find that Mason has sculpted her out of sand, or later asking of his work "is it good?" before venturing a response to it.

There are no great cinematic flourishes, no moments of wonder or imagination, just straight forward filmmaking. Indeed, the film is as much co-producer Mason's as it is Powell's. A far from silent partner who vigorously fought to cast Jack MacGowran as his scrounging 'mate' over Powell's objections, he also found himself acting as mediator when Powell would try to shout a performance out of Helen Mirren (who had come to his attention when he auditioned for Sebastian when it was still a Powell project). While McGowran and Godfrey the dog - the latter bursting with character and joi e de vivre and pulling a neat trick with his collar - may steal the scenes, it is Mason' s seemingly effortless performance that holds it together. As the artist who has got too comfortable with success, there is none of the intensity of a Van Gogh here, but rather a man neither ignorant or especially articulate who saves his real emotional responses for his work, with the star at his most relaxed and likeable.

Powell and Mason had nearly worked together on I Know Where I'm Going, a pairing that fell foul of disputes over salary (resolved) and billing (unresolved - Mason wanted top billing in the UK, conceding second billing to Wendy Hiller in the US). In the event, it worked out well for both men, with Roger Livesy proving a superior replacement for Powell's purposes and Mason going on to stardom in The Seventh Veil. When they finally did work together two decades later, the result was released to a wave of critical and commercial indifference. It is not difficult to see why. Despite the Lolita-esque title, Age Of Consent concerns itself more with the artistic than the erotic, crude romantic payoff notwithstanding. With nudity that genuinely does not titillate and little in the way of dramatic drive or subtext, it held little appeal for either camp. Whether the situation would have been improved had the film not been tampered with by its US distributors is debatable.

Columbia replaced Peter Sculthorpe's score replaced by one by Stanley Myers (not 'some Hollywood hack' as Powell put it in Million Dollar Movie), trimmed some of the nudity to avoid an X certificate (as well an an (sic) early scene in New York) and then double-billed it with an X certificate, cutting it by five minutes for its US release (this version).

The film did prove successful in Australia, but elsewhere results were underwhelming. "I had nursed the secret hope that we might succeed in breaking through the known reluctance in British and US markets to accept films made in Australia, " Mason told Clive Hirschhorn in The Films of James Mason. "That breakthrough was not to be achieved until Barry Mackenzie came along with the magic new ingredient, 'chundering'."

Subsequently, Mason, having briefly returned to the fore with Georgy Girl, seemed content to lower his sights and accept supporting roles and forego his interest in production, a move partially facillitated by his marriage to actress Clarissa Kaye, whom he met through the film. Powell tried to work again with him again on a film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest (with additional dialogue by Michael Powell), and it is tempting to see parallels in Age Of Consent, with Mason's artist in self-imposed) exile as Prospero and Mirren's free spirit as Ariel.

Instead, Age Of Consent proved to be Powell's theatrical swansong (although he did go on to reunite with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Christopher Challis to make the 55-minute The Boy Who Turned Yellow, above-average for the Children's Film Foundation, way below for Powell). From a lesser filmmaker it would doubtless seem a better film, and indeed Powell himself found little to say about the film in his memoirs, while students of his work prefer to skate around it and concentrate on the Archers era. A minor work from a major director, Age Of Consent is a slight film to be sure, but a well crafted one not without its small pleasures.

Trevor Willsmer 1994

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